Back to basics: VRF systems

Know the basics of variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems to determine if they are the right choice for your next HVAC project.


Learning objectives:

  • Summarize the different types of variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems available.
  • Explain the pros and cons of using VRF systems in a commercial building application. 
  • Identify the codes and standards that dictate the design and use of VRF systems.

Variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems are gaining in popularity and are used as an enhanced version of multi-split systems, featuring simultaneous heating and cooling as well as heat-recovery capabilities.

Modern VRF systems provide some major advantages, such as zoning, individual temperature control, minimized ductwork, excluding the need for secondary fluids (chilled-water or hot-water distribution), and associated costs. This all-electric technology consists of a single outdoor condensing unit, multiple indoor units serving various zones, refrigerant piping with branch selectors, and associated controls.

VRF systems use R-410A refrigerant as the heat-transfer fluid and the working fluid, achieving a very high energy efficiency ratio (EER) of 15 to 20 and integrated energy efficiency ratio (IEER) of 17 to 25. They are 20% to 30% more efficient than conventional HVAC systems due to partial load operation, speed modulation, zoning capabilities, and heat-recovery technology.

In recent years, gas heat pump technology has been increasingly used in certain applications where natural gas utilities offer incentives. As a result, VRF systems can contribute a great number of points toward U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification.

Figure 1: The refrigerant piping diagram shows that this system can be either in cooling mode or heating mode at the same time. Courtesy: JBA Consulting Engineers

VRF system operation

VRF systems are nontraditional HVAC systems, in comparison with conventional ducted systems circulating the air or chilled-water throughout the building. The term VRF indicates the ability of the system to vary and control the refrigerant flow through multiple evaporator coils to provide individual temperature control in various mechanical comfort zones.

Using direct expansion (DX) as part of the basic refrigeration cycle, VRF systems transfer the heat from the room directly to evaporator coils located within the conditioned space. The heat-transfer media, in this case, is the refrigerant, which delivers heating and cooling to various zones with less energy as compared with air or water.

VRF systems act as multi-split systems, connecting multiple indoor units with one centralized outdoor condensing unit assembly, providing simultaneous heating and cooling and heat recovery in various zones as follows:

  • The VRF heat pump system provides heating and cooling for all indoor units at a specific time (see Figure 1)
  • The VRF system provides nonsimultaneous cooling and heating at any time
  • Heat-recovery systems provide simultaneous cooling and heating as well as heat recovery, transferring the energy from cooling zones to heating zones of the building.

All of the above features are accomplished by VRF-enhanced technology using:

  • Variable-speed and capacity-modulated inverter duty compressors
  • Outdoor fans with variable frequency drives motors
  • Indoor units with electronically commutated motors (ECM).

System types

There are two different types of VRF systems:

Air-cooled, where multiple compressors are connected to a refrigerant-piping loop. Special attention should be paid to equipment selection in locations with high ambient conditions—outside air temperatures above 95°F. For example, in Las Vegas, with ambient temperatures at 115°F and above, the equipment de-rating can be as high as 30%.

Water-cooled, where multiple compressors are connected to a water-source loop, allowing the heat recovery between compressor units.

igure 2: In this refrigerant piping diagram of a two-pipe VRF system, this system allows simultaneous cooling and heating, using a branch circuit controller. Courtesy: JBA Consulting Engineers

Various manufacturers have developed refrigerant-piping loop systems for different applications, such as:

Two-pipe systems, which are normally used in VRF heat pump applications to provide cooling or heating only during the same operating mode (see Figure 2). Branch-circuit controllers are used with two-pipe systems to perform the following functions:

  • Separate refrigerant into gas and liquid
  • Ensure that zones in heating mode receive superheated gas
  • Ensure that zones in cooling mode receive subcooled liquid
  • Facilitate removal of heat from one zone and apply it to a different zone.

Three-pipe systems, which are configured with a heating pipe, a cooling pipe, and a return pipe (see Figure 3). Branch selectors are used with three-pipe systems to perform the same functions as two-pipe systems with the exception of separators.

  • Branch selectors do not require separators because they are connected to a three-pipe system: refrigerant liquid line, refrigerant suction gas line, and high-pressure/low-pressure (HP/LP) mixture line.
  • Branch selectors perform a similar function as branch-circuit controllers, directing the superheated gas to heating zones and subcooled liquid to cooling zones. The HP/LP mixing pipe is routed back to the outdoor condensing unit.

Figure 3: In a three-pipe VRF system, the system allows the simultaneous cooling and heating, uses branch selectors at each fan-coil unit. Courtesy: JBA Consulting Engineers

The VRF system is best suited for applications with simultaneous needs for cooling and heating during the same mode of operation. Branch selectors are used as control devices directing the liquid refrigerant or gas refrigerant to particular zones requiring cooling or heating.

In heat-recovery systems, the branch-circuit controller can take the heat recovered from the cooling zone and use it to warm up the room in heating mode. This way, the compressor cooling or heating requirements are reduced, which saves energy.

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